October 29, 2012
If you are at all familiar with personal injury lawsuits you may have heard the term “punitive damages,” but may not fully grasp what it means. Punitive damages, which are also known as “exemplary damages,” are a type of damage award designed to, as the name implies, accomplish two ends: one, to punish the person or entity found guilty of wrongdoing and, two, to make an example of the defendant and deter that person or entity, or others like them, from engaging in similarly wrongful conduct in the future.
Punitive damages are only warranted in a particular subset of successful personal injury lawsuits. In order for a court to permit an award of punitive damages, it must first conclude that the defendant’s behavior was particularly outrageous or reckless.
For example, in auto accident cases, punitive damages may enter the equation if the case establishes that the defendant: is charged (or could be charged) with manslaughter related to the accident, was legally intoxicated at the time of the accident, did not stop at the scene of the accident (hit-and-run,) was driving at a reckless rate of speed, was engaged in criminal activity at the time of the accident, or knowingly failed to maintain his or her vehicle in a safe condition. In medical malpractice cases, punitive damages may only enter the picture if the patient proves that the health care provider intended to inflict serious harm to the patient. In product liability cases, the injured person must show that the defendant’s willful, wanton or reckless behavior caused the injuries at issue.
The amount punitive damages will fluctuate based upon the specifics of each case. A defendant’s especially outrageous or malicious action would likely trigger a larger punitive damages award. The amount of punitive damages awarded in similar cases previously decided would figure in as well. Also, in deciding punitive damages, juries may look at the defendant’s net worth (which is not admissible in compensatory damages considerations).
However, Florida does place certain restrictions on punitive damages. Florida courts recently ruled that a punitive damages award so large that it would force the defendant into bankruptcy is not permissible. Additionally, Florida statutes limit punitive damages, in most cases, to the greater of either: (1) three times the compensatory damages award, or (2) $500,000. However, if the fact finder (the jury, or the judge in a bench trial) concludes that the defendant’s motivation was strictly “unreasonable financial gain,” and the defendant (or certain agents, in the case of corporations) knew of the unreasonably dangerous nature of the conduct or extremely high risk of injury, then the cap jumps to the greater of four times the compensatory award, or $2 million. If the fact finder concludes that the defendant specifically intended to harm the plaintiff, the Florida Statutes place no cap at all on punitive damages.
The type, and amount, of damages you may be entitled to in a personal injury case can seem complicated and confusing. Our personal injury attorneys are well-versed in all types of awards and experienced at pursuing all damages owed to injured people. Please call for a free, no obligation consultation to discuss your injury case.